You co-founded Hager Unternehmensberatung in 1996 and have recently returned to the company after 15 years away. What prompted you to return?
We never completely fell out of touch. Sometimes people part ways without a fight because they simply choose to take a different path in life. The decision to come back was a process. There were lots of talks over the last few months. The management team at Hager simply did a good job of convincing me. They are obviously excellent recruiters (he laughs).
Thomas Sattelberger once said, "There is no guarantee that a company will survive.” The average lifespan of a company is nine years.
Hager could also have ceased to exist a long, long time ago. The fact that things turned out otherwise is down to the management. It's great to see the company thriving and very successful now. In a nutshell, for me, the deciding factor to return here was the potential that this great organization offers. We share similar ideas and visions. Executive Search is just one of them. We have a lot of plans. There are other projects we have in the pipeline, but I can't talk about them now.
In recent years, you have been working as a consultant and coach. What insights have you gained from that?
I've come a long way. I was 25 years old when I founded the company, and now I'm 49. One key insight is certainly that everyone is in the same boat and makes mistakes. But the most important thing of all is the knowledge that people are the central factor in everything. That’s why communication is so crucial. This may sound simple and perhaps trivial, but in reality, it is a huge challenge. It took me a while to internalize this too. Interestingly, everyone struggles with this issue; whether they’re corporations or five-man agencies, they all make the same mistakes. Employee appreciation often falls short of expectations. Many problems arise from wrong expectations and the obsessive pursuit of perfection.
The working world has changed dramatically. This has consequences for everyone involved. Let's start with the job applicants: What do they need to bring to the table to succeed?
People always say they have to have a digital mindset. That's not wrong, but it's not a distinguishing feature. Actually, all young people have a digital mindset. What’s much more important is their personality, their people skills and listening skills. And that’s what we have to explore in our discussions, that’s our job. Let’s assume that AI-based software has been used during the hiring process and the candidate has successfully passed the tests. Despite all the sophisticated analysis and questioning methodology, if the CEO doesn't like him or her because the chemistry just isn't right, then it's over. That's why, when it comes down to it, it's all about personality. And of course, this is even truer the higher up you go in the hierarchy, as is the case for us with Executive Search. We have never made a placement where we completely missed the mark. What distinguishes us from an AI tool is instinct. For example, you have a candidate who, according to objective standards, does not fit the job profile 100 percent. And then you hear a sentence, a remark, and suddenly you know: That's it. You put him or her on the list at number one, the customer is thrilled, happy ending. No AI can do that, at least not in our field. It may be different in other sectors and industries where you have gigantic amounts of data.
Interestingly, we are currently seeing immense technological upheaval in the HR sector; one of the latest unicorns, Personio, is causing a stir here. For you working in Executive Search, that doesn't matter. But to what extent do platforms like Xing or LinkedIn make your work easier?
Now you’re talking! (He laughs) I'm a coach, I've trained people in HR consulting. As far as I'm concerned, you could turn off the Internet tomorrow and I'd still find people. To cut a long story short: The idea behind HR consulting is to present the best candidate available on the market. And you don't just find them on Xing or LinkedIn. In addition, some professional groups are not represented at all. Marketing is more likely to be represented, as is HR, while electrical engineers are less common, and medical specialists are very rare. To put this into perspective, let's take Xing, the market leader in German-speaking countries. Only 25 to 30 percent of the working population are registered on there. What about the other 70 to 75 percent? How do I get to them? And that is the craft, the skill of a personnel consultant. That is our USP. And let's assume that I did find the person who could fit the position there. What happens next? How do I contact them? Mail and hope for the best, or call?
Let's say you worked at Siemens and I wanted to contact you. A good recruiter would call and get put through to you.
What else makes a good recruiter?
Creativity! Thinking about: Where can I find the right people? On account of the "war for talent," you have to think of new ways to recruit, even from other industries. This also includes curiosity and communication skills. They are essential. I would even say that, to a certain extent, you have to be a seller. Not in the sense of a classic salesperson of course, but you have to be able to inspire people and bring them along. You also need to be organized. You need a clear plan, goals, defined processes. And you need a lot of empathy. You have to have a feel for people and their situations. That's part of the matching process. If someone says, 'I bought a house yesterday, my children are seven and go to school here, so I don't want to move from Hamburg to Munich', I won’t start trying to persuade them otherwise. Instead, I respect their decision. You have a lot of responsibility, because the decision to accept any job has consequences. In every way, not just financially. It's important not to forget that.
Let's take a look at the generation of tomorrow. There are a lot of rumors circulating about them. How do you perceive Gen Z?
First of all, this cohort is highly educated. I think that’s often portrayed far too negatively. The people who are now coming out of universities, whether they were educated in Germany or internationally, are professionally top-notch. What I sometimes feel is missing is though is their focus on performance. You can have all the New Work concepts, conscientious interactions and good working atmospheres you like, but you can't do business without ambition. When students start talking about a work-life balance, I find it irritating. I can still remember myself when I was that age. You had to work hard and put in a lot of effort. That was part of it. That, on the other hand, is something I don’t see as much today. Talents from other nations are more driven. I’m quite critical of that.
How should companies respond to the glaring shortage of skilled workers? Companies in the digital industry in particular are searching for employees at break-neck speed; the "war for talent" is in full swing...
First and foremost, the fundamental attitude of ‘You're lucky to be working here’ has to change. It's no longer in keeping with the times, and it's no longer true. That's not the way to attract people, and certainly not the good ones. Having the wrong self-image is also compounded by the poor training of managers. Basically, it is a sales mission. The credo has to be: I apply to the applicant. You have to make an effort with him or her. This is where we still experience major deficits, regardless of the size of the company. If you're a small or medium-sized company competing against the big dogs, you have to get creative and offer real added value to the talent. I can't always just complain. I have to do something to make people want to work for me. And until that happens, it will be a constant competition for the best minds. That’s what this mindset boils down to. As a company, I also have to evolve culturally and remain open. Similarly, I have to constantly educate and train my employees, and offer them development opportunities. This is not a short-term measure, but should be long-term. That's the kind of thing that gets around. However, it's not enough to always give long soapbox speeches and talk about “being a team” where “every single person counts.” I really can't bear hearing that nonsense anymore.
What other misunderstandings are there?
They misunderstand simple mathematics. Let's assume that the entrepreneur tells his employees: We have to make more sales. He will be frustrated because it simply won’t work. If they are incompetent employees, how can they make more sales? On the other hand, if I only hire top people, then I will make more sales. It's as simple as that. The solution lies in recruiting the right people. So simple, but so difficult - for some at least – to grasp.
It also requires a certain amount of self-assurance. After all, the old saying goes: 'A's hire A's and B's hire C's`.
That's true. I'm always looking for people who are better than me. My added value is that I keep an eye on the big picture, I am responsible for directing and piloting the team. It’s a dream to work only with the best people!
The biggest no-nos in recruiting:
Disrespect and arrogance: It's 2021 and we are in a “war for talent”. That means the company is applying to the applicant or candidate. They are not supplicants. End of.
Poor preparation for the interview: Just as you expect the other person to have read up on the company, you need to have a plan when you go into the interview. And, of course, know who is sitting across from you.
Unclear communication and lack of transparency: If applicants walk out of the interview not knowing or not having dared to ask how the process will continue and what the next steps are, that’s very bad.
Processes that are too long: Yes, recruiting employees is not a decision you make lightly, but having ten conversations and eternal internal coordination loops is inefficient. What's the betting that the best talent has already signed on with the next company by then?